Despite claims and assurances to the contrary, Concord City Council and top city administrators have conspired behind closed doors since 2009 to create, package, market, and sell Measure Q, a half-cent per dollar sales tax increase that appears on the November 2010 ballot. Through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, Halfway To Concord has obtained documents that show this Manhattan-like Project cost Concord taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars for consultant fees and high-paid city employee work hours. If passed, Measure Q will needlessly cost taxpayers at least $6,000,000 more.
According to Concord City government (CCG) documents, before any Brown-Acted public hearing with full, impartial disclosure of all sides of the issue and a public vote by Concord City Council, the only question city leadership was asking in November 2009 was whether a new tax should be an increase—how much and for how long—in the sales or utility tax, or a $100 parcel tax. Community input was only considered a means of making its actions seem credible.
The record shows that beginning in 2009, CCG transformed the traditional annual public hearing process—to gauge community priorities for its 2011-12 city budget planning—into a single-minded, full court press to raise taxes. Beginning in 2009 and continuing through December 2010, CCG contracted with multiple consulting firms to develop and implement plans to carefully design one-sided push surveys, and recast public hearings, workshops, and “discussions” with “civic leaders” into tacit community support for a tax increase.
Furthermore, since July 27, 2010, when the Concord City Council passed a resolution to place Measure Q on the November ballot, the CCG continues to meet regularly with its paid consultants to plan City-sponsored campaign activities for Measure Q through Election Day, in violation of the California’s Brown Act and Fair Political Practices Committee regulations and state law.
Selling Measure Q begins here. Council had already made up its mind. In a memo dated November 12, 2009, Concord City staff states that, given tough times faced by all, Council wants to “broaden its typical community outreach over the next six months to gain insight into preferences and opinions of the community in methods to close the City’s $9.7 million budget gap.” The structural deficit would be “addressed over the next two years.”
Council clearly had already made a decision in 2009 to place a tax on the November 2010 ballot no matter what taxpayers thought. The CCG hired Godbe Research to create and conduct surveys that would provide “credibility” for its actions. By January, city staff had received drafts of a newly repurposed “Community Priority Survey” that would serve as the statistical fig leaf for further pro-tax actions and provide cover for the City Council.
The money for Godbe was taken from the “typical” budget workshop budget allocated the year before, to be used instead for a different purpose—provide cover for a tax increase.
Records show that by January 11, 2010, Godbe had already sent a draft for an initial survey (Godbe #1) to city staff. City of Concord Assistant Manager Valerie Barone and Community Relations Manager Leslye Asera corresponded with Amelia Davidson of Godbe to wordsmith the survey:
Jan -12, 2010 — Change wording to” ‘In future voters in Concord may be asked to could be asked’”
In this same e-mail, the City was already conspiring to cover its tracks and hide information about the process by looking into ways to protect pro-tax collaborators from any public scrutiny. Barone asked Davidson, “The question is fine but it seems we discussed letting people who answered ‘yes’ to this question (#21 that gives respondents opportunity to opt into further surveys) know that their name and other information would not be connected to this survey.”
Prior to this, city staff had done considerable research on alternative taxes and ball park figures on how much each would raise. In an e-mail to Davidson dated Jan 12, 2010, Asera writes”
We’ve been able to get some numbers for you:
1. Parcel Tax revenue: We have 34,700 taxable parcels, so revenue would be $3,740,000
2. Sales Tax: Our Finance Director estimates that .25 cent sales tax would generate $6 million
3. UUT: We have not been able to estimate this tax precisely. As you probably know, Hayward’s newly passed UUT is 5,5% on natural gas, electricity, telecommunications (traditional telephone service, long distance service, cellular phone service, and data services), and video/cable television services. The City estimates it will produce $10 million to $13 million in revenue, according to their website. Hayward’s population i the 2000 census was 140,000. Concord’s population was 122,000. Would it be reasonable to project that Concord’s UUT revenue would be in the $8 million – $11 million range?
By January, the usual community-driven priorities concerning crime, education, jobs, homelessness, and traffic (city budget was ranked 12th!), would be co-opted into data points for a new tax. City government and its program of public hearings and surveys from this point on was no longer about what residents wanted, but what City Government wanted. Community priorities had been subsumed to budget deficits and bad decisions that comprise the status quo of bloated budgets and out of control government spending.
Godbe #1 was conducted in January, and was “designed to test support” for a sales tax v a utility user tax and to identify the rate and duration.” The survey of 600 was designed to have respondents express approval of city services without any discussion of continuing cost or impact on the city’s structural budget deficit. The survey guided this uninformed assent into manufactured “sure, why not” responses that favored maintenance of current services, thus trapping respondents into accepting some tax as the only viable alternative to maintain the current structural deficit! Cutting expenses was never provided as an alternative. Only the City’s carefully crafted narrative concerning how “it had cut and can’t cut anymore,” was portrayed as truth. This is what the City of Concord passes off as “impartial analysis.”
Indeed, the only alternative provided was for either a sales tax or utility tax. The 600 respondents were split into two groups of 300; one each for kind of tax. The margin of error for the 600 was noted as 4%, and at 5.6% for the two groups of 300.
The survey results predictably showed that support for the city’s version of no-alternative reality fell according to rate and duration of the tax. One result of Godbe #1 not touted by the City shows more respondents (13%) wanted more cuts “to services and facilities” than just a tax increase (11%). 68% wanted a combination of spending cuts and new tax, but this isn’t what the City and consultants were selling.
A full 57% of respondents reported they had no idea what was going on with the City budget deficit, and said the City’s survey and version of the truth was the first they’d heard. Note to City management: only 5% of respondents mentioned the City newsletter or website (3%) as sources of information. And, as far as furlough days are concerned, only 37%, one of the lowest scores, were concerned with limited business hours for City services.
For a full account of Godbe #1 ask City hall for Appendix C: Topline Report dated January 2010, and the February 2010 presentation by Godbe.
After the completion of Godbe #1, city staff continued to work the problem of how to raise taxes instead of seriously cutting expenses and pension costs. On March 5, 2010, Hdl Holding Companies sent Barone estimates on what a half-cent sales tax could raise. Additional discussion touched on how a half-cent sales tax might work in terms of what a municipality qua “exporter” would receive in revenue depending on the nature and location of the purchase.
Lloyd Lamas of Hdl said normal people, “don’t care what the sales tax is when evaluating whether to buy an item.” Those that “would drive to another town to save 50¢ on a a $100 chain saw probably isn’t shopping locally anyway…they are buying over the internet, from thrift shops or through the underground economy.”
That’s what the City and its experts think of any resident so bizarre as to question an unnecessary tax or rationally act to avoid taxation. Besides, Hdl is just plain wrong about the Internet. 92% of shoppers research online and then 95% buy local (Forrester Research US eCommerce: Five Year Forecast, 10/06). Unfortunately, ignorant Luddites can be found everywhere, whether in the ranks of City government or its consultants.
Further entrenched in its mission to pass a tax no matter what, the CCG hired Lew Edwards Group (LEG) to help design the spin campaign. On April 28, 2010, Barone asked Jessica Reynolds to send a document that:
“won’t be a published document, so much as a tool for is to walk through the process with them (Council) We feel we need to do this prior to asking their help identifying the community leaders…otherwise they will worry about when and who in the community we are going to contact and what we are going to say”
LEG responded April 29, 2010 with a document for “Spring and Summer Communications Action Steps,” that identified various phases of the campaign to pass Measure Q. This is months before Brown Acted public hearings and the July 27, 2010 vote by council.
The document noted the city had completed its preliminary opinion crafting. April through June would be used to “Prepare for and implement Communications.” LEG would help craft facts and messages for CCG, develop a speakers bureau, powerpoint presentations, FAQs, speakers’ manual, draft the opinion leader update and update opinion leader lists, and develop a strategy for creating and delivering the message.
LEG also oversaw updates for the city website, scheduled and conducted speaker training, conducted one-on-one meetings with business and community influencers, and planned op-eds and press releases, while bragging about “Earned Media” opportunities from an uncritical traditional media.
The City of Concord continues to conspire regularly with its paid consultants to plan City sponsored campaign activities for Measure Q through Election Day, in violation of the California’s Brown Act and Fair Political Practices Committee regulations and state law.
This is the background for the so-called “impartial” mailers sent to residents as propaganda pieces to sell only the City’s perspective and no-alternative approach to raising taxes.
The cynicism of city government and its consultants was palpable. The mailers clearly were not meant to inform but to persuade to one and one only outcome, pass Measure Q. This can be further corroborated by the LEG plan, which called for design of an additional Godbe survey (Godbe #2) to track effectiveness of the second city mailer to assess the likelihood of success on the November ballot or not. Despite the claims from CCG, these mailers were not impartial informational pieces. “When taken as a whole and in context,” these mailers nothing but partisan campaign pieces that “unambiguously urged voters to a specific outcome.”
The LEG plan also called for identification of testifiers—such as those whose names appeared on some of the mailings as “community leaders” and influencers representing key constituents, such as fixed-income seniors wary of funding cuts.
The LEG plan specified “post-(ballot)-placement needs and fall education efforts (August-November). This phase prescribed a third city mailer prior to August 8; creations of “rapid response” messages as needed to quash any objections or tough questions (furloughs); update of the (unused) city website; and begin fall schedule of speaker bureau “outreach presentations” to unsuspecting community groups.
A Concord Citizen Advisory Group (CCAG) was formed. Its kickoff meeting agenda is dated June 23, 2010. City staff attending included Concord City Administrator Dan Keen, Barone, and Asera at ready to massage the message.
CCAG was formed as a cadre of pro-tax community collaborators, representatives of captive service organization, and “players” whose responsibilities and activities would include listening to city presentations, fingering other community leaders and organizations, and other patsies (like the highly subsidized Todos Santos Business Association), that should be recruited; and to potentially lend their good names to the city’s programmatic subterfuge.
The list of the members of this group is held secret by CCG. Why can they not stand publicly to defend their opinions or actions today? Were there any conflicts of interests inherent in this group, like recruiting the president of the Concord Police Officer Association (chief beneficiary of a new tax) as signer of the Pro Measure Q ballot statement?
The CCAG met continuously thru June through August, with meetings held: June 23, June 30, July 7, July 14, and July 19. During this time, the CCAG was carefully coached on the city position, received city assessments from Godbe #2 before the general public, deliberated on a count down of action steps leading up to the July 27 City Council meeting, the date targeted in advance for passage of the resolution for a tax to be placed on the November ballot.
The group also was privy to the mailers the City planned to promote, and discussed further outreach including its role in the community during the subsequent highly partisan campaign to pass Measure Q.
During these meetings Concord City Attorney Craig Labadie was tasked with writing the resolution and ballot statement.
On July 23, 2010, the staff posted its staff recommendation that council, at its July 27 meeting, should pass the resolution to place what would become Measure Q on the November ballot. Council’s vote on July 27 was unanimous and came just days before the ballot measure filing deadline, so as to avoid public input and review of the proposed tax measure and preparation of ballot arguments against it. The unelected but appointed Councilmember and Mayor Guy Bjerke, rushed the ballot argument for Measure Q to the City Clerk.
Councilmember Peterson, candidate for Contra Costa District Attorney, had the stones to brag that he was against the tax but wanted to make sure Concord voters just got a chance to decide. Please. Just one word from any of the Councilmembers could have stopped the charade. If Peterson is so against taxes, like he tells every Republican group that will listen to him as he campaigns for Contra Costa District Attorney. Republicans need to ask: why wasn’t Peterson first in line to work with residents to oppose Measure Q?
City documents and e-mails show that, after the tax measure was officially placed on the ballot, the City of Concord CONTINUED to illegally organize active political campaigning for the measure with continued mailings, city communications, and official presentations.
the only question city leadership was asking in November 2009 was whether a new tax should be an increase—how much and for how long—in the sales or utility tax, or a $100 parcel tax. Community input was considered only a way to make its actions seem credible.
LEG continued to consult with city staff on wordsmithing and planning. Its contract runs through December 2010. In fact, LEG representatives participated in ongoing teleconference with the City of Concord “Revenue Communications Planning Agenda Team” (Agenda Team). Documents show meeting agenda for August 25, September 8, September 22, and a scheduled a meeting for as recent as October 8. These meetings, in concert with city staff, discussed ongoing propaganda and campaign-related activities. It touched briefly on its scope and sought Labadie’s opinion concerning legal limits of its activities.
The Agenda Team created the opinion leader letter and newsletter text and pushed content onto the City website. Documents were traded back and forth between city staff and LEG. Asera received drafts for the City Newsletter touting Measure Q from Bonnie Jean von Krogh of LEG on September 3. Drafts for ballot statements were jointly reviewed. Consideration was given to crafting of preferred (ultimately inane) responses to, e.g. how to handle questions about why have furlough days instead of simply reducing staff or salaries.
The California Fair Political Practices Commission, Section 18901.1 states (all must be present)
1.) tangible item
2.) Must EITHER
expressly advocates election or defeat of clearly identified measure
“when taken as a whole and in context,” unambiguously urges a particular result
3.) public monies are paid for EITHER
a. costs of distribution
b) costs to design and prepare are over $50
More than 200 pieces
City government documents clearly substantiate claims that the City of Concord knowingly violated FPPC regulations concerning illegal campaign activities on behalf of Measure Q. It contracted and conspired with consultants to prepare materials that were not impartial but were designed specifically to promote passage of Measure Q to the exclusion of all other possibilities.
~ Bill Gram-Reefer (BGR) is editor and publisher of Halfway To Concord and president of WORLDVIEW PR. He is filer and co-author of the Argument Against Concord Measure Q and of the Rebuttal Against the Pro Measure Q ballot statement.